Rereading Sedgwick, or, Oh Yeah, I Like Teaching

The first paragraph from this famous essay by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick just stopped me cold:

“Sometime back in the middle of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, I was picking the brains of a friend of mine, the activist scholar Cindy Patton, about the probable natural history of HIV. This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread, whether HIV represented a plot or experiment by the U.S. military that had gotten out of control, or perhaps that was behaving exactly as it was meant to. After hearing a lot from her about the geography and economics of the global traffic in blood products, I finally, with some eagerness, asked Patton what she thought of these sinister rumors about the virus’s origin. ‘‘Any of the early steps in its spread could have been either accidental or deliberate,’’ she said. ‘‘But I just have trouble getting interested in that. I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things—what would we know then that we don’t already know?’’ -from “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You”

Very different epidemic–AND a remarkably speedier development of treatments and vaccines (an observation I don’t think is paranoid)–but still, what foreshadowing in a piece originally published nearly 20 years ago! The essay goes on to analyze the contagiousness of suspicion as an approach to texts taken by literary critics and theorists, as in, “Let me expose the prejudices lurking behind this poem.” Rather than strive to forestall humiliation by the author-poet who wants to put one over on you, a reader could, she suggests, seek pleasure from a piece of literature, because life is pretty hard and art can make us feel better. That’s a gross oversimplication, and I’m not even touching on some really important aspects of the essay: how she describes each method working in queer theory plus the Freudian stuff (so much Freud…). Yet this essay grants a professor permission to be a fan as well as an analyst of poetry, and many others have taken it that way, too. What a pleasure to revisit it.

My first full week of teaching was exhausting, full of positive feelings about my students but inflected by pandemic fears, too. Cases are rising fast here. We’re in person, masked, but students are having tons of unmasked encounters–let’s call them encounters–in residence and dining halls and, I presume, at parties. Prepping for and teaching 6 90-minute classes is as hard as I remembered, even before the grading starts; things are high-powered here, with smart students chewing through material fast, something that’s both lucky and sometimes a major challenge to keep up with. And there are all the extras like advising, reference letters, department meetings and consultations, university-wide meetings and events, etc etc. I’m beat.

Yet I’m having fun, too. I’m prepping Sedgwick’s essay for a senior seminar called “Taking Literature Personally”; during that session we’ll try some paranoid and reparative reading of Frank O’Hara’s poetry (no spoilers, but my lesson plan involves crayons). For yesterday’s class, we read the poem “Philomela” and the essay “Nightingale” by Paisley Rekdal as well as the Ovid tale for background, which is infinitely darker material though just as powerful. Whatever the literature at hand, the flow experiences of rereading then planning discussions feels really good. I wish I had more time to linger in it, but I’m being strict with myself about stopping work when I’m tired. I’m an introvert who HAS to recharge and a grown-up person who HAS to rest and sleep. I’m doing okay at it for now.

The picture below is from my book signing here in Lexington this week. Office hours, teach two classes, assemble cheese plate, then hold court at an author event for 2 hours–it was ambitious for a Tuesday. Yet pleasurable, too. I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my Randolph College reading next week, where at least I don’t have to cater the refreshments. Meanwhile, here comes Friday night, a drink with a friend, a gentle hike tomorrow morning. As I used to tell myself during college hangovers: pacing, Lesley. Everything’s more fun when you get the pacing right.

“A diary of this kind is neither authentic nor satisfactory”: Millay’s journals

Champagne for breakfast!–no, I’m only kidding, but that’s what Edna St. Vincent Millay had on her birthday in 1933. I was asked to blurb an edition of her diaries, Rapture and Melancholy: The Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by Daniel Mark Epstein and forthcoming from Yale University Press. I’ve been reading the galleys for days. My head is full of her voice, which IS rapturous and melancholy sometimes, but also hilarious and chatty and occasionally wonderfully snarky. “The weather is frightful!” “Got the curse.” “I’ve just had my first gin-fizz. And it’s not going to be my last.” Millay records some mundane details–letters received, college grades, her weight when she was ill–and lots of meticulous observations about social and natural worlds, especially the flowers and birds at her Steepletop estate, where she gardened her heart out (sometimes in the buff) and occasionally hosted visitors, plenty of them distinguished.

Millay kept diaries on and off from the age of 15 forward, with big gaps. Some diaries could have been destroyed by family to conceal evidence of her wild adventures, but it’s just as likely that her diarizing was sporadic. She needed the money publication brought. Millay grew up in painful poverty, but even after she became famous, with funds for housecleaners and travel and scenic properties, she depended on her income from publishing and performances. I’m glad she wrote privately about asters and green snakes and bobolinks, but it wasn’t a practical way to spend her limited energy.

I don’t rely on income from my writing and a good thing, too. Yet her journals make me think about the calculus of blogging about poetry. There are plenty of people who can’t afford to give any writing away or who, at least, choose not to. I see the sense in that and sometimes wonder if diverting writing energy to this blog has dented my rusting jalopy of a career.

Blogging isn’t the same as keeping a diary, of course. Millay shared her journals with friends once in a while, and her husband even contributed occasional updates. She also constructed imaginary readerships, especially when younger, addressing entries to mother-substitutes and future lovers. But they were essentially private undertakings. Teenaged Millay gets quite fierce on the subject:

Resolved.
Firstly. That, henceforth, no one reads my diary.
Secondly. That whosoever, by stealth or any other underhand means, 
opens these pages to read, shall be subject to the rack, the guillotine, the
axe, the scaffold, or any other form of torture I may see fit to administer.

Blogs can be diary-like in their episodic reflections and informal voice, but even when the tone is intimate, they’re meant to be read. Further, they can be instruments for increasing an author’s visibility, and very occasionally they generate revenue. This platform has probably raised my profile a tiny bit, but not in proportion to the amount of effort it requires. In how they aim at small audiences, literary blogs seem more like letters–bids for connection among friends in the ether–but they do resemble private diaries in cultivating habits of attention that nourish a writer’s practice. They’re also zones of experiment for constructing a public self.

I like blogging because I like writing but publication is slow. It’s nice to have an immediate outlet for thoughts I’m not ready to cast as essays or poems. I’m not about to stop in favor of more strategic writing behavior, although one day I might. But I do regret a little having channeled time away from truly private writing. What’s really on my mind is often not mine to share–this week, “worrying about a friend in trouble” doesn’t even remotely cover it–so I end up misrepresenting aspects of my life in my blog, probably most often by projecting coherence I certainly do not feel. I don’t know if any entry is really better than a verbal selfie, in which I “show” my writing, reading self at a deceptively flattering angle. As Millay said at one of the many moments she castigates herself for not writing, “A diary of this kind is neither authentic nor satisfactory.”

Well, poets are experts at the simulacrum of presence, creating an illusion of voice through dry printed words. Millay certainly was. “What kind of beast would turn its life into words?” Adrienne Rich once wrote. Me, I guess, over and over again, trying to be authentic enough to satisfy myself.

Snagged in the antlers

I’ve been dreaming of my mother as a younger woman, the way she looked when I was a child and teenager, although in these dreams, she’s also somehow elderly and dying. The night of the summer solstice, she was sick in bed staring at a crack that had just formed on the ceiling. It looked like a man with antlers, and she was afraid of him. The next morning I, of course, went down an internet rabbit hole reading about deer-deities and Horned Gods. Underworld guides and mediators. Huh.

I thought more about the dream as I caught up with fellow poetry bloggers and read Ann Michael’s post “Constricted” about literary blockages related to sorrow. I’m pretty healthy right now, aside from the usual trouble sleeping and some chronic tendonitis (ah, middle age), but I feel the draggy reluctance to work, cook, or take walks that I associate with illness. The heat and humidity, my husband said. Sadness for my daughter, who is going through a rough breakup, is in the mix. But grief for my mother is also moving through my body and mind even when I’m not aware of it. It’s a more complicated, subterranean, barbed process than I would have guessed. I hope she’s okay out there and not frightened by whatever she’s processing. I’m not religious, or even a monotheist, but I do think we continue after death, and I feel an inner orientation to her as I did to my father during the months after he passed. I had the strong sense that he was being called to come to terms with his life and refusing the work. Being angry and avoidant would have been very much in character.

Meanwhile, after my post-Bread Loaf bout of poetry revision and submission, I’m trying to concentrate on near-final edits to the essay collection I’m publishing this fall, Poetry’s Possible Worlds. It’s about reading twenty-first century poetry, but it’s also about my mother catching my 85-year-old father in an affair with a woman forty years younger (it was 2011 and I was 43, pursuing a Fulbright in New Zealand). My mother promptly divorced him, discovering along the way that he’d lost their retirement savings. Within a year, my father remarried, fell ill, had more divorce papers served to his bedside, and died. I had LOTS of dreams about him, although my grief was different because, while I loved him, he was an impossible person to like. My relationship with my mother was full of stresses–a new poem of mine in SWWIM gives a glimpse of that–but still, I loved her wholly.

So, um, maybe that’s another reason I’m struggling to focus. The book is emotionally hard right now. Plus, the previous version ended with my mother’s recovery from lymphoma, the disease that just recurred and killed her. I haven’t revisited the book’s conclusion yet.

In short, I am negotiating my need for mental rest in relation to my work drive, which is probably the overarching theme of this blog (and my life?). My best strategy for sidestepping a sense of obligation has always been travel, which has not been possible for a while, but: I’m going to ICELAND soon! Like, next week! Just with my spouse, for fun! I hope to return to you in two weeks with my Celtic deity nightmares replaced by musings about glaciers, volcanoes, and overpriced Icelandic microbrews–although the revisions will still be waiting.

Multiple worlds in poetry, fiction, and politics

Traveling to an alternate universe of thinking and writing has been helpful lately given an attempted coup, and racist police response, AND the apocalyptic daily death count and a catastrophically lame vaccine rollout. I don’t manage the leap into literary concentration every day, but that’s actually what my next book is about: what helps us slip into the reading trance, where poetry is concerned, and what that border-crossing does for a reader.

I’m polishing and updating my forthcoming essay collection, to be called Poetry’s Possible Worlds or Taking Poetry Personally depending on what my editor says. It requires reading and rereading widely and wildly to make sure my thinking and research are up-to-date: Carolyn Dinshaw’s exhilarating How Soon Is Now, Nicole Seymour’s Bad Environmentalism, and essays on narrative theory, deep attention, presentism, poetry of witness, and much more. New to me is Brian Attebery’s Stories About Stories, of interest partly because I’m thinking about story in poetry but also because of my investment in speculative fiction. Attebery argues that the cultural importance of literary fantasy as a genre lies in how it “redefine[s] the relationship between contemporary readers and mythic texts.” I’m not wholly satisfied with that as a definition, yet the book is useful and interesting. He describes genre, for instance, as “fuzzy sets”: “the question of what genre a particular text belongs to will never be resolved, nor need it be. The interesting question about any given story is not whether it is fantasy or science fiction or realistic novel, but rather what happens when we read it as one of those things.”

In the larger sense, I write in many genres–poetry, fiction, criticism, reviews, literary nonfiction–but I also think of myself as operating in the borderlands between smaller categories. My poetry has appeared and been reviewed in both “mainstream” and sf venues; it’s been called lyric, political, formalist, fabulist, and more, to which I say, cool. My forthcoming hybrid essay collection (blending criticism, theory, and personal narrative) argues that most poetry is not just fiction but fantasy. It’s fiction because framing it on a page as literary art sets it apart from truth and lies; it’s fantasy because, notwithstanding, it’s obsessed with what’s true. I define fantasy in a way that’s tangential to Attebery’s idea; I think of it as fiction exploring questions of what’s real, what matters.

And then there’s my novel Unbecoming. It’s been described as “an excellent feminist fantasy,” Weird fiction, magic realism, a fairy tale, and academic satire. Since it concerns the transformations involved in menopause I thought it might get dismissed as “women’s fiction,” but that’s not how it’s been received at all. No reviewer has called it “domestic fabulism,” either, which might be just as well, although I like some things about the term. The latter refers to books in which the primary world is realistic but into which weirdness makes persistent incursions–a structure that also describes many or most Stephen King novels, and he’s not called a “domestic fabulist.” As much as I enjoy some stories set in secondary worlds, novels that explore the strangeness of what seems familiar are my sweet spot. They’re more realistic than realism, in my experience, and more interesting. Poetry absolutely occupies similar territory, refreshing the ways we encounter the mundane.

Does Unbecoming redefine anyone’s relationship to myth? It does involve crossings in and out of a place like Faerie (called by an acerbic narrator UnWales), considering those crossings as migration tales as well as metaphors for weird bodily metamorphoses (true story: people fall asleep and wake up middle-aged). UnWales seems like an alternate possible reality, too, for characters who are stuck in a bad script or negotiating discrimination. Yet I wonder if the more important myths in my novel are those about menopause, that it’s an end of all good things instead of a beginning. The main character also has to reconsider lots of stories about herself, among them to what extent she’s actually a good person who helps make the world better. I’d give her a mixed grade on that. If you’ve read the novel, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Back to the allegedly real world where conspiracy theorists in pelts and Viking horns invade the Capitol, convinced they live in a country where the presidential election was stolen, ready to live by and die for their fantasies.

Blue/ jazzed

The other day we got up early and drove to western Augusta County because the hikes there are much quieter than along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where foliage is peaking and so are the visitors. On autumn mornings here, especially if the day is going to be sunny, mist hugs the ground, gathering most densely over water and other warm places, wreathing the mountains. As the car wound along the empty highway, past farms and Trump signs and gun shops and churches, we alternately dipped into foggy hollows and rose up into sunshine where dew spangled the trees and the last wisps of steam curled up from roofs and embankments. The drive was an obvious metaphor for this October. I have moments of shiny hope but I keep crashing into feeling bad in the most sweeping ways, fearing the election and many more months of isolation, losing faith in everything I’ve written, unable to concentrate on the work I should be doing now. I’m pretty sure everyone feels the same–unless you’re stuck entirely in the lowlands. Here’s hoping the view gets clearer soon.

I can’t write poems but I need to work on prose anyway, particularly honing Poetry’s Possible Worlds, a book of hybrid essays due sometime in 2021. It blends criticism and memoir in a discussion of literary transportation–meaning immersive reading or getting lost in a book–in relation to short twenty-first century poems. I was going like gangbusters last week, but I’m dragging myself through the work very slowly this week. That’s okay, I keep telling myself. The two weeks before the US presidential election were always going to suck. Even when the world isn’t in dangerous meltdown, writing is full of hills and valleys.

I traded messages with a friend last week about the discouragement we often feel about finding readerships. It’s damn hard work and doesn’t get you very far; luck and connections probably matter more. Yet it’s helpful to have camaraderie in frustration. I always read Dave Bonta’s weekly Blog Digest, and this week that struggle was a major theme, especially in Kristy Bowen’s amazing post about self-publishing. It’s awful but cheerful, as Elizabeth Bishop said, or at least cheering to remember that this is just the way writing goes. You’d better be doing the work for it’s own sake or as a gift to others, not expecting anything in return, not even attention–yet the gifts will come back to you sometimes in surprising ways.

Gifts of late: a wonderful, thoughtful review of Unbecoming in Strange Horizons and a poem called “Dragon Questionnaire” in the same magazine; participating in a warm and intimate reading series organized by Johns Hopkins professor Lucy Bucknell; word of forthcoming reviews of The State She’s In; and a local author talk on Unbecoming scheduled and promoted by W&L’s amazing library staff. The latter is Tuesday October 27th, 7 pm EST, and open to the public–just register here: https://go.wlu.edu/unbecoming. I’ll talk about the book’s origin, read a couple of spooky excerpts, take questions, and give a couple of writing prompts.

Late breaking, too: I just got tapped to read from Unbecoming at the World Fantasy Convention, virtual this year. I’ll be part of the Weird Fiction Cluster on Friday October 30th from 10:30-12:30 pm ET, 8:30 Mountain Time (it should have been in Utah this year). The timing: oy. I’m no night owl, but I’ll manage somehow. The opportunity: hallelujah! The readings will be recorded for registered participants to view for weeks afterwards, which makes potential audience reach pretty good. See? I should be pleased to have attained this little hill.

In local politics, there’s good news, too. No word yet on whether W&L is changing its name, but The Washington Post just called our next-door neighbor, Virginia Military Institute, to the carpet for failing to deal with its deeply racist campus climate, and the governor is launching an investigative probe. In a small town like this one you inevitably have friends who work there, and I’m more optimistic for them and the cadets than I’ve felt for a long while. All the little justice struggles do add up, even if it takes forever, with lots of ups and downs along the way.

Not resolutions but invocations

Last year, I substituted a mantra for a resolution: “breathe.” It helped a little. This New Year’s Eve I wrote up more resolutions, got upset about them, and then decided: to hell with self-improvement. I need fewer bullet points on my endlessly guilty, mildly self-loathing to-do lists. And better ones. In fact, let’s not even call them bullet points. They look like open pupils, too. Pencil points. Poppy seeds.

In considering what words I and others DO need to hear, I’ve been crafting a call for Shenandoah‘s next poetry submission period that will read something like this: “During our March 2020 reading period, please send us prayers, spells, charms, curses, blessings, invocations—poems that try to make change happen. All forms, styles, and procedures are welcome. A selection will appear in a special Shenandoah portfolio in the Spring 2021 issue.”

I know I’m not good about practicing self-care, but I want to keep asking for help this year, sending something like prayers or petitions outward and earthward. (I don’t believe there’s a god up in the sky, although it’s fine with me if you do; I do believe in a living earth that I can listen to and do better by.) I plan to mutter, be kind, pay attention, especially to myself. (And I will remind us to vote for kindness, too, whenever a crooked system gives you the chance. Fires blasting Australia, the U.S. president stirring up war to deflect attention from impeachment–I’m not sure we or the more-than-human-world can take much more of this.)

It may seem paradoxical, given these meditations on care, that I’m beginning 2020 by trying to be in two places at once. As the term starts here in Virginia, I’m handing a pile of syllabi and first-day lessons to my professor-spouse (I swear he’s fine with it, and well-rested!), then hopping on a plane to Seattle to attend the MLA convention. After thinking deeply about whether saying yes was another instance of crazed dutifulness, I decided that, actually, I want to go, as long as I can conference kindly.

The first thing I’m going to do when I arrive is hang out, for the pleasure of it, with a long-distance friend I hardly ever see, Jeannine Hall Gailey. Over the next few days, I’ll attend a few panels, and I’m speaking on a fun one, too (and trying not to stress about it). I joined Janine Utell’s MLA roundtable, “The Space Between Creative Nonfiction and Literary Criticism,” because I thought it would enrich my thinking as well as making my own work more visible, especially the creative criticism in my 2021 book Poetry’s Possible Worlds; this is the kind of conversation I want to have more of, genuinely. On Friday night, I’m part of an all-star lineup at the MLA Offsite Reading (2 minutes each and I’m quite sure most stars will peel off by the time we get to my part of the alphabet, which is fine with me–see the poster below). And on Saturday night, I join Jeannine Hall Gailey to read speculative poetry at Open Books. In between I’m planning to sleep, avoid my email, take a walk or two, and do minimal homework, as well as being super-nice to the anxious job-seekers in the MLA elevators.

Attending is also a way of being kinder to myself as a writer, rather than being maniacally diligent as a teacher (what do you mean, miss a class?!–we will NEVER GET THAT HOUR BACK!). I’d like to do better at fulfilling my responsibilities to what I’ve written, as Jeannine says in PR for Poets, which I’ve been rereading. In addition to the aforementioned 2021 essay collection, I have a fifth poetry collection, The State She’s In, and a first novel, Unbecoming, to launch this spring (look, I made pages!). I believe in them and I want them to find readers. No more prioritizing a tidy email inbox over inquiring about a reading series or submitting to a post-publication prize! I need to do less busy-work, somehow, in 2020, but also keep priorities straight. I will achieve this imperfectly, if at all. But it’s not about checking off a list, right? It’s about keeping those pupils wide. Wish all of us luck. And write some powerful spell-poems, please, no matter where you plan to release their magic.

Credit to a local poet-friend, Julie Phillips Brown, for making a shareable poster!

We are all steam engines

In The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Atkins conveys an impressive degree of excitement about entropy. “No other scientific law has contributed more to the liberation of the human spirit than the second law of thermodynamics…because it provides a foundation for understanding why any change occurs,” he writes (37). Later in the chapter, after reminding us that we are basically steam engines, he describes how “wherever structure is to be conjured from disorder, it must be driven by the generation of greater disorder elsewhere” (61). (Is that why my house and office get so messy when I’m writing?)

For example, in human beings: “the dispersal that corresponds to an increase in entropy is the metabolism of food and the dispersal of energy and matter that that metabolism releases. The structure that taps into that dispersal is not a mechanical chain of pistons and gears, but the biochemical pathways within the body…Thus, as we eat, so we grow. The structures may be of a different kind: they may be works of art. For another structure that can be driven into existence by coupling to the energy released by ingestion and digestion consists of organized electrical activity within the brain constructed from random electrical and neuronal activity. Thus, as we eat, we create: we create works of art, of literature, and of understanding.”

I am reading about thermodynamics and quantum theory in order to better understand some poems, naturally. A former undergraduate student–a poet and a Physics/ English double-major, Max Chapnick–is now an English PhD student at Boston University, and he contacted me last summer about putting together a panel on physics and poetry for the International MLA Symposium. It was accepted, so now we’re all going to Lisbon in late July (hurrah!). This requires me to spend a few preparatory weeks analyzing Samiya Bashir’s excellent 2017 collection from Nightboat, Field Theories. I understood what she was doing with thermodynamics and quantum theory just enough to generate a proposal, but to be able to write in some depth about what radiation means in her book, how blackbodies function, whether or not that one poem is meant to resemble the “ultraviolet catastrophe” graph, etc.–well, it’s hard.

Work is motion against an opposing force,” Atkins writes, and I’ve definitely been feeling the weight of my own intellectual resistance. It’s not that I don’t want to do the writing or even the thinking; it’s a privilege, truly. But I’ve been puzzling through problems laboriously, in a mood of worry. I’ve written before about the annual difficulty of kicking my brain into a different gear, and surely that’s part of it, but I’m also experiencing one of those bouts of insecurity that afflict most writers I know, no matter the genre. It’s not only “am I interpreting these difficult poems in plausible ways?” but something more like “are my scholarly/ interpretive moves sufficiently interesting that anyone would really want to read or listen to me, or is everyone just humoring me because I once showed some intellectual promise and remain a reasonably nice person who tends to do the work and show up on time?” It doesn’t help my morale that I was just informed that I’ll receive an average raise this year, percentage-wise, when I know my DH recommended me for an exceptional one. Between you and me, I did a monstrous amount of good teaching, service, and publication in 2018, but my radiation did not seem to fall into the spectrum of visible light.

This is not my first self-doubt rodeo, so I can reassure myself that continuing to work is better than the alternatives, and confidence comes back. Besides, delivering Bashir’s accomplishments to new audiences is in itself worthwhile service to an art I love. And when self-doubt veers into guilt, as it should sometimes–a mediocre raise, how sad for you! or why do I get to eat a nice lunch and metabolize the results into criticism while refugees ail at the border in dangerously overcrowded detention camps?–I should make a donation or put that rally on my calendar, but still keep dispersing most of my daytime labor among tasks I’m competent at and believe are worthwhile.

Scholarship is a smaller portion of that array of tasks than it used to be, in part because it sharpens my existential angst more than other kinds of labor. I’ve been studying a couple of brilliant, well-written books about literature and science by scholar N. Katherine Hayles, for instance, and realizing again: look how amazing this is, how much work and hard thinking it represents, and here I am skimming the damn stuff. I would so much rather read and be read than keep participating in the scholarly skimmability system…so whenever I reenter this arena, I end up pondering ways to reinvent the universe.

So I remind myself: just write the conference paper, Steam Engine. Next week, start re-revising your book of hybrid criticism, which WILL come to print in 2021. Keep submitting and revising shorter works around the edges and planning some exciting new courses. At an undetermined date (but soon?), you will be asked to submit your poetry ms to Tinderbox Editions, then there will be edits, then galleys. In August, after Lisbon, come novel edits (the pub date for Unbecoming has been pushed back to March-ish, same as the poetry collection, yikes). In the mix should be book promotion planning, reviews and reference letters, grant applications for that 2020-2021 sabbatical. There’s a lot of landscape to cover, Steam Engine, but address one task at a time. Don’t panic and increase the pressure unsustainably, but don’t quit either. It’ll take as long as it takes.

Chug, chug.

Also a steam engine, believe it or not

Nibbling on gigans and glosas

I’ve been sick in a not-clearly-diagnosed way, so I’ve been resting and trying to read the signs. What “resting” looks like for me almost always involves books (the big exception was during my second pregnancy, when concentrating on anything, even the radio, made me throw up–but you don’t want to hear about that circle of hell). I’ve been keeping on top of hard work deadlines, but otherwise just trying to nourish myself–and also, through reading verse, nourishing the poems I’m somehow drafting each day for National Poetry Writing Month. That may count as a kind of rest, too, in that I’m not worrying if my drafts are good or bad or building toward something. The judging part of my brain isn’t working well and I’m done with the teaching year, so even though the soft deadlines will eventually come round to face me, for the moment I may as well play.

I therefore have a few recent poetry collections to recommend, all of which inspired me to keep playing. The first of them I carried around Haverford on Accepted Students Day last weekend–did I mention my son decided to go to Haverford? Since the book is all about family, loss, and finding consolation in tiny moments amid the chaos of middle age’s mundane struggles–which for the author involves single motherhood in New York City, and a child with special needs–it felt like the perfect thing to tote in my purse next to the ibuprofen I shouldn’t have been mainlining. The Miracles by Amy Lemmon is big-hearted and sad and sweet and wry and lovely. Here’s “Another Day,” about shopping for grain-free crackers when you really, really want an almond croissant.

The Bones of Winter Birds by Ann Fisher-Wirth went into the purse a couple of days later, at a very low moment, when the strep seemed to be bouncing back, or was it something else–could it be mono, the nurse practitioner asked? A couple of needle stabs later, the verdict is probably not, but this snow-covered beauty of a book was great company in uncertainty. The first poem in Fisher-Wirth’s book is a gigan, a form invented by Ruth Ellen Kocher that I’d never tried before, so I had to experiment immediately, and you should go for it, too. (As soon as you start getting stuck you have to repeat a line, which is handy. My prompt to you: write a gigan about something BIG.) After I scratched that itch and jumped back in, I was moved again and again. There is a sequence mourning a sister Fisher-Wirth didn’t know well, and there are also a number of small gems, talismans of grief transformed into beauty, like “Vicksburg National Military Park”. Here’s a slightly longer one, funny-heartbreaking: “Love Minus Zero.”

Like Fisher-Wirth’s book, Martha Silano’s Gravity Assist is deeply ecopoetic: she’s trying to rocket out to the big picture, taking in species loss, disastrous pollution, and other terrors of the anthropocene. Silano is one of our best science poets, in my opinion, but she’s also a specialist in awe, exuberant about beauty and love and the good things that persist in this damaged world (for the moment!). Her gorgeous “Peach Glosa” reminds me I’ve never successfully attempted that form…hmm. Also, it’s not online, but if you’re a tired and overextended woman irritated by exhortations to tranquility, you need to get this book and read “Dear Mr. Wordsworth.”

And to come back to cosmic signs: my Saturday afternoon binge was 3 Nights of the Perseids by Ned Balbo. These poems aren’t quite as astronomically-sited as Silano’s, despite the title. They’re starriest in their concerns with power–often power misused–and persistence, particularly how poetry, art, music, and speech itself just keep shining on. Balbo’s iambic riffs on social media are funny-creepy (check out “deadbook”); the elegies for Prince, Bowie, and other artists are beautiful; and his testimonies from Adjunctlandia are incisive and priceless.

I read the latter while reclined on the sunroom sofa, window open; from there I can scent lemon balm and mint on the chilly breeze. The air makes me feel connected to a world I’ve felt quarantined from. The poems do, too. I’ve reviewed titles by three of these writers in fancier venues than this blog, and shared meals with all of them at conferences, coming to know them in that distant-intimate way you sometimes know poetry compatriots, whose brains you’re on good terms with even if you don’t hang with them in person very often. What a balm, a bright and breath-restoring rest their company is–definitely preferable to prednisone and gummy vitamins.

My main excuse to go outside: photographing books on the weed “lawn”

Keeping the minutes on violence, with Lucille Clifton

For a workshop on Tuesday, Election Day, one of my undergraduates submitted a poem based on the day he hid in a closet during a middle school shooting. A different student said there had been a shooting in her school, too; another described an active shooter just last week in the high school her sister attended; a fourth said a friend had died in the Parkland massacre. Stunned, I responded with something like, “Are you telling me that four out of the fifteen of you have had a near miss with a school shooting?” Then two more raised their hands. Six.

Gun violence in the US is insanely, horrifyingly prevalent; every new mass shooting refreshes the horror and also increases the number of Americans directly affected. A good friend’s father’s retirement center was recently in lockdown because of an active shooter. And when I described the workshop discussion to a friend who had come over to watch the election returns, she said, “Oh, that happened to me, too,” describing hiding in a basement when a shooter attacked the university where she was earning her PhD. She always has a plan, now, for how to hide if another shooter comes through.

Nor is our remote small town any kind of a protective factor. We have offices in Washington and Lee’s historic colonnade, which is very much the heart of the embattled Confederacy for certain die-hard white nationalists, who are angry about the slightest possible changes to their sacred sites. Some of whom distributed KKK fliers on campus just a couple of weeks ago. Any place in the US is vulnerable to violence from well-armed disturbed people, but we have an extra source of risk without the security resources of larger universities.

In short, teachers now have dangerous jobs, students are always vulnerable to random violence, and nowhere is safe. So all together, now: let’s write pantoums! Seriously, teaching poetry during any of the crises we’ve been negotiating lately could seem frivolous, but I’ve been feeling the opposite. My poetry classes keep turning into spaces for analyzing and reflecting on disaster in ways that feel more emotionally useful than, say, reading the news.

words ofSome of that is chance resonance between syllabi and world events. Well, sort of chance. For a different course, my mid-20th-century US poetry seminar, we’re studying the usual characters–O’Hara, Brooks, Rich, and others–but I replaced a session I used to devote to Vietnam war protest poetry with several readings from an anthology I’ve really come to admire: Words of Protest, Words of Freedom, edited by Jeffrey Lamar Coleman. It’s been clear especially since Trump’s rise that we remain in the middle of Civil Rights battles that defined the country fifty years ago, or perhaps in a never-ending backlash against them, so I knew it was time to represent Civil Rights poetry more robustly on my syllabus. Coleman clearly did his research, because while the book contains many famous poems by our best US poets, it also features more obscure work culled from little magazines of the era, and the friction is riveting. I’ve been so impressed by how eagerly and intelligently my students are working through material that is even more relevant than I intended. The KKK leaflets were distributed here on a Friday, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting occurred the next morning, and for Monday, the assignment was to discuss poems about the KKK bombing of a Baptist church that killed four young girls in Birmingham in 1963. That synchronicity has definitely brought urgency to our discussions.

But is it synchronicity, now, or just the permanent daily texture of the world? Since I started drafting this post, there’s been another mass shooting. The election cheered me, but the administration immediately punched back with more ways of undermining the law. Poetry gives me access to other minds confronting related crises thoughtfully–it’s personally useful to read Giovanni, Hayden, Brooks, and many others as they work through anger and hope and grief–but it’s also providing small collections of us with a nonpartisan angle of discussion on the human toll of violence, the way it ripples out in space and time, and I’m grateful for that, too. It makes me feel warmly connected to other anxious human beings working through serious questions, and I hope it does the same for them.

Here’s a Lucille Clifton poem from the anthology, from a group of responses to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My students led a brilliant discussion about it: who is included in the “we” who held the “meeting” for which this poem offers a riff on the usually less-than-gripping literary genre of minutes? How are the “we” and the “you” related? What does it mean to be saved? Is the tone of the last few lines wry, disparaging, or sympathetic?clifton poem

We all had slightly different answers, and listening to Clifton reading the poem here (minute 7:14) can change your mind yet again. It’s centering to think about it when your heart needs rest after other kinds of activism. Who are we, anyway? Where are we headed?

Obliterature

“Obliterature draws attention to the gendered formation of literary value while also denoting the casual, minor, repurposed, and ephemeral writing expelled from literary criticism’s traditional purview. Such writing might include letters to the editor, junk mail, diary entries and their twenty-first-century digital descendants: blog entries, comments on a newspaper and magazine site, Instagram posts, LiveJournals, Snapchats, Tumblrs, or tweets. Obliterature, fittingly enough, is also popular parlance for a ‘letter or email written while drunk off your ass’…The concept, as we develop it in this article, explains the literary phenomenon of not being fully in control of one’s words and the labor phenomenon of not being fully in control of one’s work.”

– from “Obliterature: Towards an Amateur Criticism” by Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde in the September 2018 Modernism/ modernity, a special issue on “weak theory”

None of us knows if our writing careers will be of much interest to literary critics in the future–or whether there will continue to be literary critics, or a future–but I have to add a few more categories of ephemeral writing that consume a LOT of my time these days: comments on student poems, response papers, quizzes, and essays; assignment sheets; teaching notes; course descriptions; recommendation letters; private editorial comments on Submittable; and the smartphone text-i-verse with its debris of emoticons. I’ve also been a lead drafter on a surprising number of university-related guidelines and reports, having been here for 24 years and generally preferring to do the writing portion of committee work over other tasks.

So I like this term “obliterature” a lot, although it’s from an article I’ve so far only read a portion of, because I’m tight on time but got snagged by the title as I was sorting mail. I recognize obliterature as an object of fascination for me as a critic–all the scraps and commonplace books kept by Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Anne Spencer, and many other women as they tried to find time for poetry amid domestic chores, tough jobs, and political urgencies. I also recognize it, with more chagrin, as denoting a body of seemingly-necessary writing I constantly perform, obliterating time for other kinds of writing I am constantly saying I should prioritize.

Trying to keep my head above water as a teacher, I’m writing very little for any current or future public these days, except for this blog. But I have been stricter with myself than usual about finishing revisions on long mss and making sure they’re under submission–one of which is a book of criticism mixed with personal narrative, which editors keep telling me they like but can’t publish or persuade their boards to take on. Writing personally is just too feminine, maybe. To quote from later in the same essay: “To read like a girl, or throw like a girl, or run like a girl, is to do it the wrong way.”

I love the feminist call from Micir and Vadde for passionate amateurism, for questioning the grounds of expertise and its forums, but I also observe how professionally the call is constructed, in a top-notch scholarly journal, with 6+ pages of fine-print endnotes. In other words, their petition arrived on my desk via the very mechanisms they put under critique. I just hope they and I are right that there’s a readership for such writing in its long, less familiar, less prestigious, and perhaps girlier forms–and that publishers become more willing to take it on.

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A few of the many cards collected among Anne Spencer’s papers